The sad truth is the GPS system is a fragile one, easily blocked and interfered with, as the tragic fatal crash of a drone in South Korea last month (shown above) showed. 

Now DARPA is sponsoring new research to help drones navigate without GPS. Called "All Source Positioning and Navigation (ASPN),” it’s trying to “enable low-cost, robust and seamless navigation solutions … with or without GPS.”

Wired writes:

Right now, the agency notes, the military’s navigation systems primarily rely on a pairing of two devices: GPS, which uses satellite data, and what’s known as an Inertial Navigation System (INS), which relies on “dead reckoning” (using estimates of speed and direction, without external references) to provide locational intel.

It’s a tactic that’s accompanied by several problems. For one, INS — because it uses internal, ongoing estimates — is notoriously error-prone without a GPS system to back it up, so it can’t be relied upon exclusively. And INS systems often obtain their starting position and velocity from a GPS device. Which means if the GPS is under attack, the INS risks leading military personnel (or the drone or weapon they’re navigating) astray.

These navigational systems are also extremely inflexible. Typically, Darpa notes, they’re programmed to accommodate, maybe, one additional sensor (say, a magnetometer) and unable to plug into any others. As a result, personnel can’t respond to “new threats or mission challenges” in real time. Not to mention that, even as consumer navigation tech becomes more sophisticated (Apple Maps, anyone?) the military can’t take advantage of the most cutting-edge products.

Of course, there are already plenty of GPS alternatives available. Radio beacons, which transmit signals from static locations to receiving devices, allow the calculation of location based on proximity to various beacons. Ground feature navigation extracts the positions of tracked objects and then uses them as points of reference to gauge a vessel’s locale. And stellar navigation systems use the coordinates of celestial bodies to assist in a vehicle’s navigation.

Darpa’s dream navigational system would go beyond those kinds of discreet systems — by incorporating pretty much all of them. The ASPN system, according to Darpa’s announcement, should be able to accomodate any available sensor, and be versatile enough to incorporate new sensors “as they become available in the marketplace.” The key benefit to such adaptability would be the mitigation of GPS-dependency. Personnel would instead have myriad sensors at their disposal, and be able to toggle between them as necessary. In other words, a suite of backup tools to work, in conjunction, as a safety net in case of GPS failure. Among the ton of gadgets that Darpa wants the system to utilize: 3-D imagers, LiDAR, temperature sensors … and good old compasses.

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Comment by David on June 13, 2012 at 9:59pm

Do you know if anybody has used both thermopiles and an IMU to help increase attitude estimation accuracy before?


Moderator
Comment by Gary Mortimer on June 14, 2012 at 12:47am

Loran, now your showing your age Monroe ;-) The Navy in the UK often used to run GPS jamming on a Thursday in the English Channel, they also used to wipe out radars as well when I was in the RAF so checking NOTAM's is always a good plan. Who knows some fly aways might be as a result of known tests. I think I am right in saying the Navy has been told to stop GPS jamming these days as too many people rely on it.

I wonder if it would be possible to listen out for VORs on a tiny device and work out a rough position. Of course they are well separated and would probably need some height to hear.

Comment by Marc Puig on June 14, 2012 at 1:31am

Are the electronics of the APM2 capable of doing true inertial navigation (like commercial planes) or at least inertial navigation aided with GPS? It would improve the navigational system integrity and I think loiter would be much better.

Comment by Jack Crossfire on June 14, 2012 at 2:01am

There's certainly an incentive to augment GPS accuracy with vision in arducopter.  It just can't use vision at night.


Developer
Comment by Ryan Beall on June 14, 2012 at 3:07am

It seems like INS is almost garbage from the above description.  The drift rates for common INS in military aircraft including uav's are really quite phenomenal.  Range of the aircraft dependent, you could easily get yourself out of a bind with INS.  We train to loss of GPS antennas all the time and could easily navigate with no external nav-aids if need-be.

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on June 14, 2012 at 3:12am

I have wondered if it is possible to map interstellar pulsar emissions that could be used for a kind of universal GPS system. I'm sure I'm talking bollocks here, but I just wonder if it has a chance of working...

Comment by Marooned on June 14, 2012 at 3:48am

Having alternative system to GPS sounds even more important after this incident.

Comment by Paul Marsh on June 14, 2012 at 4:27am

Has it been determined that GPS jamming was the cause of the Camcopter crash, or of the loss of the RQ-170 in Iran?  Regardless, I understand the need for alternatives, but in these cases I haven't come across conclusive reports as yet.

Comment by Dave C on June 14, 2012 at 5:02pm

Dare i suggest that the members of each country group all team up and point some seriously high power yagis at each other. We could do a DIY positional network :)

(where legal, of course)

Comment by Greg Fletcher on June 14, 2012 at 6:57pm

With a well calibrated airspeed and magnetometer, I think a reasonable(better than nothing) dead-reckoning system could be implemented into Ardupilot for fixed wing aircraft. Starting with it's last known position it would try to guide the plane to either where it was going or RTL. While the gps was working, it could constantly update wind estimates and use that in the dead-reckoning calculations when the GPS goes away, and then prevent your plane from flying away and point it in the right direction. 

I still can't figure out how we lost one in Iran. It must of been far away and had an engine failure and just guided itself to a landing on the way home.

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